REVIEW: The Hartlepool Monkey book may ‘appear an insult to some’

The graphic novel
The graphic novel

IT is what identifies us when we are anywhere in the world.

“I’m from Hartlepool” is usually met with an “oh, a monkey hanger” acknowledgement.

Love or hate the name-tag, not many other towns have unique association like this, whether it is linked to fact or fiction.

As a Hartlepudlian myself, I couldn’t wait to get hold of a copy of the new The Hartlepool Monkey book.

It is a beautifully drawn graphic novel, written by Frenchman Wilfrid Lupano and expertly illustrated by Jeremie Moreau.

It’s hard to believe that the legend – of the poor monkey hung by townsfolk who mistakenly believed it was a French spy during the Napoleonic Wars – is little known the other side of the Channel.

The book begins on board a ship with the bigoted French captain describing how he came to have the ship’s monkey – dressed in French army uniform to provide entertainment – as a souvenir from his time “plying the waters of the coast of West Africa in the ebony trade”.

When the ship’s young mate is heard singing an English sea shanty, the captain is horrified to hear he learned it from his British nanny.

The boy is made to walk the plank and at that very moment the ship is struck by lighting, tossing the vessel into catastrophe and sending the crew to their death.

All apart from the clever monkey, that is, who manages to grab on to the mast.

The monkey is washed up on the shore of Hartlepool, where the locals are quick to decry the “poxy French vermin” and “filthy frog-eating lily-livered skite of rat’s droppings”.

What follows is a startling look at mob mentality and how humans can be shockingly cruel.

In one image, the monkey is seen cowering in a dark ‘prison’ hut, awaiting his fate.

We get a glimpse of him thinking back to his time in the jungle.

The monkey is even shaven for a “trial” on the beach.

Through it all the locals reason that he must be French, due to his “vile language”, his “ponging summat dreadful” and the French being covered in coarse, greasy hair and having feet that look like hands. After the shocking hanging, it is only a doctor, from out of the town, who points out the Hartlepudlians’ gaffe.

The book may appear an insult to some – there are no redeeming features whatsover of the townsfolk.

But then the legend is hardly complimentary and it is written by a Frenchman after all.

It’s an intriguing read, which cleverly explores extreme treatment of outsiders.

But I did finish feeling as bruised and battered as the poor monkey with the harsh treatment of the Hartlepudlians, who are portrayed as buffoons.

The Hartlepool Monkey (Knockabout) costs £12.99.